Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a fucking emotional rollercoaster of a book. It tells the story, in great detail, of a violent mass murder in rural Kansas and the subsequent trial and punishment of its perpetrators. Capote delves deep into the lives of the victims, deep into the life of their town, deep into the heads and histories of the killers and deep into the language and words of everybody concerned.
His heavily researched book* pulls apart the minutest details of time and place in order to give the reader an absolute blow by blow account of what happened to who and when; what led the killers to the crime, what led them to justify their behaviour, how they thought they could escape and why they ended up being caught. Capote is sympathetic to everyone involved – the innocents slaughtered, as well as the slaughtered innocence of the men who grew up to be killers.
The writer described the text as a “non-fiction novel”, this acknowledging a romanticisation, perhaps, of dialogue, some characters, settings… but it may also be an overt reference to Capote’s impressive characterisation of a large cast, his beautiful descriptions of setting, and the conflicting moral readings of many figures. The religious fervour of the Kansans can be seen as a weakness, Capote’s average reader is of course, too, expected to see their abstemiousness almost farcical – not only do the victims’ townsfolk refuse to drink alcohol, but a scary amount of them abjure tea and coffee too. The politeness with which the violent killers are treated borders on the absurd, as too does the way Capote asks the reader to respect, care for and (kind of) hope for the reprieve of Perry Smith, the elder of the killers.
Perry’s unpleasant and abusive childhood is used almost as an excuse for his criminal tendencies, and Capote crafts a character who feels more like a misunderstood artist than the cold-blooded killer he actually was. Capote weaves together interviews (both journalistic and police), psychiatric evaluations, diaries, newspaper articles, poetic reimaginings, passages that feel like a classic American road novel, grisly detailed violence, keen internal questionings and several biographical sections that he claims were written by the killers themselves. This is a dense, involving, read that forces its reader to contemplate dark, nonsensical, violence, the hypocrisy of an “unbalanced” mind**, and the superficiality of a “good, Christian, existence”. There is lots of delusion, lots of fear, lots of danger. Although the reader knows who the murderers are from the start of the book, the reasons for and the details of the deaths are held back until later. This is a chilling book, I think that’s the right word, and one I would highly recommend.
However, if one does read this with a cynical eye, one could find inconsistencies in Capote’s style, one could accuse his sympathies of unpleasantness, one could ascribe to his tone something inappropriate, and one could also call him out as a morbid voyeur elbowing his way into strangers’ horrible deaths in order to create literature. But the fact remains that this is an excellent book, a riveting read and, for its time, a rather experimental and hard-to-categorise text, all of which (to me) justifies the invasion, removes any shame: Capote has written something worth keeping, and he has written it about something deeply unpleasant. Credit where due et al. A classic for a reason.
* Though apparently full of factual errors. But does that matter..?
** For both of the killers, there are things each will and will not tolerate in the other.